Rebekah and Dave Kelly have an eye for the upside.
In November 2016 the hill country farmers lost most of the infrastructure on their 2000ha North Canterbury property to the 7.8 magnitude Kaikoura earthquake.
Half a hillside slipped into the Leader River, creating a dam the family christened Lake Rebekah.
Now, as the family celebrates 100 years on the property the Kellys are backing the wonder of grass to take them into a second century.
Rebekah says her family’s connection to Woodchester means everything.
“This is my turangawaewae. Most of what I know about myself is based on where I live and what it is that we do.
“And Dave has only ever wanted to farm so the challenge was before us and we just decided that we’re going to carry on.
“This place is too valuable. What we’re doing here is too special to us.”
The stock numbers on the Waiau farm are 2800 ewes, 2800 hoggets, 400 breeding cows, 300-odd calves and 200 beehives.
But the asset register doesn’t show Rebekah’s and Dave’s other big engine – their ability to accept loss, recognise frailty and stand up to knocks.
Nearing the end of 2016 Rebekah was starting to see relief at the end of a three-year drought.
“But in November of that year we had a massive earthquake and woke up in the middle of the night to bedroom furniture flying across the room.
Every day’s an open day now on Dave and Rebekah Kelly’s farm. They are prepared to have people come in and look at their animals and identify their condition and be transparent about their management systems and inputs.
“Me and Rebekah, we’ve lived in Auckland and we felt no great urban-rural divide within our friendship circles and I think sometimes you’ve just got to be in a position to say “well that’s not true”.
At times, when the slog of farm recovery has got them down, they’ve had to consciously work out whether it’s worth devoting mental and emotional energy to criticism of their farming sector.
“That’s part of your coping strategies, really. You’ve just got to decipher, is this true? Is this fair and reasonable? Is this actually what’s going on? And then you’ve just got to move on.”
As a kid Dave always wanted to be running around outside.
“Even from a young age, pounding on the windows in a classroom I just wanted to be outside in New Zealand. Couldn’t think of living anywhere else.”
Coming to Woodchester has been a growing-up process for him. He arrived there aged 26, having completed a Smedley cadetship and having played first class cricket with some of the country’s finest. He still loves the game and has passed it on to his children.
As a farmer he counts it as a gift to have had the chance to run a place of such scale from a fairly young age.
“Farming’s such a physical occupation and that’s probably been the great inheritance we’ve had in the best years of our farming lives – to have had a hand on the rudder. So, when these things happened we were running a pretty short chain of command.”
The early experience probably helped them stay afloat, he says.
“We knew what we needed to do. And on top of that we’ve always carried a vision of how we’d like things to be. So we had a great opportunity to change things because they were so stuffed after the quake that we actually had to start again. But having that vision made it very easy to transition into putting things where I wanted them and redesigning the system.”
Rebekah says because they already felt so connected to the farm the rebuild didn’t feel like the thankless, Herculean task it might have otherwise.
“We love farming. We love farming this place. We love being part of rural communities and raising our children here.”
Dave says their aim is to wear themselves out and leave the farm in good shape for others.
Rebekah is determined to make a difference in farming and their community in the meantime.
“We’re a small country and every one of us can have a huge influence in a small country and that’s a great thing about living here.”
Pasture a champion in the carbon game
Grassland should be a mainstay of carbon sequestration but it’s given no credit, Dave and Rebekah Kelly say.
“You know, 30% of New Zealand’s landmass is already covered in trees.
“Our grass does the same thing that trees do.
“They take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in order to grow. And I just can’t believe there haven’t been more measurements done around pasture. The backbone of our country is actually based on absorbing carbon dioxide,” Dave says.
He reckons NZ should make more of that fact to market product and lift agriculture out of the commodity basket. The other option, farming more intensively, feels like a dead-end street.
“Our pasture-based farming system is amazing.
“Our whole economy is based on grass pasture and we need to be really careful that we don’t cross over into more intensive, industrialised farming so that what we’re doing becomes a grey area.
“I think we really need to look at the value of our products as opposed to pumping out volume through commodities.”
The Kellys are worried about more trees being planted on farms.
“We don’t actually need to plant our country in pine trees. We don’t need to shut down small rural communities and take the life out of them because pastoral farming creates activity in our villages, it creates a lot of work and employment and just the flow and rhythm of life.”
There can’t be anything much worse than putting a chain on a farm gate and locking it up for 30 years, he says.
Rebekah is adamant grass-based agriculture is a better bet, not least because agri has a fast cycle for carbon sequestration. If you’ve got trees you can claim carbon for 20 or 30 years of their life but that stops once you cut them down.
“Planting trees actually ends up being a short-term solution, whereas if we’re putting carbon into the soil with grass then that can continue happening. It’s a cycle.”
At the heart of it, a farm like Woodchester isn’t adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
“If you look at a property like this we’re probably in a situation where we’re actually carbon positive.”